Lane Wright: School Choice Is a Great Thing. Now, Parents Need Better Choices — and More of Them

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When the call came in two weeks ago, I thought it might be another spammer. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway.

“Hello, is this Mr. Wright?”

“Yes, this is Lane.”

“Hi. I’m calling from the School of Arts and Sciences at the Centre location. I’m calling to let you know your son has been accepted to our school for this fall. Can you confirm that he will be 5 before the school year begins?”

“Yes! I can.”

As we continued the call, I marveled at how lucky my family was. Arts and Sciences is the best charter school in Tallahassee — at least, according to the state report card. It’s won accolades from Florida’s Department of Education, the Florida Charter School Conference, and the U.S. Department of Education. A friend whose kids attend the school loves it there. It has great reviews online and a strong rating from GreatSchools.org.

For years, people have told me how few openings the school has each year and how depressingly low the chances are.

“Everybody applies to the School of Arts and Sciences thinking they’re going to get in,” a friend said. “But I’m realistic. I’m exploring other options.”

I’ve never been a gambler. I don’t buy scratch-and-win tickets here in Florida, but now I know what it feels like to win the lottery. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Not only will my oldest attend this school, but his two younger sisters will have that chance as well.

But I can’t help empathizing with families that didn’t get in, especially those who really needed a better option, maybe even more than we did.

Good Home, Not-So-Good School Zone

Five years ago, we paid a modest price for our home in a decent neighborhood on the northern edge of Tallahassee’s south side, close to downtown. It’s the kind of place where people take care of their lawns and let azaleas, crape myrtles, and a dozen other flowering species bloom in all their pink and white glory. There’s a little park just three doors down featuring a gazebo and a sprawling ancient oak tree as the centerpoint.

But it’s not all Leave It to Beaver around here.

Our house also happens to be a three-minute walk from two apartment complexes (one of which is pretty run-down) and streets where the duplexes are so close together that there’s room only for cement pads to park cars — no green lawns, just vehicles packed in even tighter than the houses.

When we bought our home, we focused on what we could afford, how much we liked the well-maintained houses on the block, and how close we would be to downtown. We also liked the racial and economic diversity of the neighborhood and hoped our kids wouldn’t be the only black children at the playground.

We weren’t too focused on the fact that our kids would be zoned for some of the lower-performing schools in the city. We had looked at nicer neighborhoods, but the homes cost more than we felt comfortable paying.

Our oldest was just a baby when we moved in, so we didn’t notice at first that there were almost no families with small children in our immediate area. For the most part, the only people who stayed in this school zone were either those who didn’t have children or those, like us, who didn’t have money to buy somewhere nicer.

Not Much Choice

Florida is considered a leader in school choice. Here in Tallahassee, we’ve got a half-dozen charter schools, magnet and International Baccalaureate programs, and an open-enrollment system that gives you the option of attending any traditional public school you’re not zoned for, as long as you can get there and there is space available. For the best schools, though, there typically isn’t.

But if you dig a little deeper, you realize that all the public charter schools serving mostly minorities and students in poverty are struggling just as much as the traditional public schools with the same sorts of kids. The magnet and IB programs seem to reinforce segregation between black and white, and between the rich and poor students within the same school. (“The IB kids don’t even interact with the general population,” one friend told me.)

It all boils down to one uncomfortable fact: Despite all the laws and programs in place to expand options for students and families, there really aren’t as many good choices as you might think — which makes my phone call all the more meaningful.

It also raises a tension in me.

On the one hand, finding a way to not attend our zoned school feels like we’re abandoning the kids who have go to there, but as a father, my first responsibility is to provide the best opportunities for my own children. Sure, taking my black children away from a mostly black school doesn’t change the racial dynamics or reduce the diversity of the school, but we’re a solidly middle-class family that can afford to travel out West to visit grandparents every year or two. My kids have two college-educated parents and play community sports. So, leaving does have an impact on the social and economic makeup of the school.

But the solution here isn’t to make those who have options give them up, or to force those who get lucky, like me, to sacrifice their own children on an altar of guilt.

The solution is to have better options, and more of them.

It’s not OK that we have only a handful of high-performing schools in any given district, or that students from the south sides of this country are typically relegated to schools with the fewest resources, the least-effective teachers, and the lowest standards.

Throwing up our hands and blaming poverty is also wrong. Yes, poverty has an impact, but some urban districts, like Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Hillsborough County, are outperforming other urban districts and seeing significant growth. Some charter school networks like Achievement First, KIPP, and Uncommon are getting more kids from low-income families to pass state exams and make it to college where others have failed.

Improving our schools is possible. Helping kids overcome the obstacles of poverty is possible. These are problems we can solve. But if we don’t, I worry our luck will run out. Not just for my kids, but for all of us.

My family is fortunate. We won a lottery with lifelong returns. We got a phone call with hope on the other end of the line. I want every parent to be able to get a phone call like that.

Lane Wright is an editor at Education Post focused on telling stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better, and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

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